Journal of the Institute for the Study of Legal Ethics

Publication Date



A. The Lessons of Spaulding

It is August 1957, in rural Minnesota and two cars are speeding toward one another to a fatal rendezvous at a country crossing with no stop signs. The collision resulted in one of the gems of law teaching, Spaulding v. Zimmerman. David Spaulding, a 20-year old minor, was seriously injured as a passenger in a car driven by John Zimmerman, which collided with one driven by Florian Ledermann. Spaulding's father brought suit on his son's behalf against the drivers and parentowners of the two vehicles. The three medical experts who treated David Spaulding did not discover that Spaulding, in addition to a severe brain concussion, broken clavicles, and chest injuries, had incurred an aneurysm of the aorta, almost certainly caused by the accident, that threatened his life. The physician retained by the defense lawyers, Dr. Hannah, discovered and reported this injury and its life-threatening character to one of the defense lawyers, shortly before the parties were to meet to discuss settlement.

At the settlement conference, Spaulding's claim was settled for $6,500. At this conference the defense lawyers, knowing that Spaulding and his lawyers were unaware of the aneurysm, did not disclose it or make representations concerning the scope of Spaulding's injuries. Because Spaulding was a minor at the time of the settlement, his lawyer was required to petition the court to approve the settlement. The petition included only the injuries known to Spaulding and his lawyer. The court approved the settlement and entered judgment.

Nearly two years later, during a physical examination required by Spaulding's army reserve status, the aneurysm was discovered. Surgery was immediately performed. Spaulding, now an adult, then sought to set aside the earlier settlement, arguing mutual mistake of fact, and, after the defense lawyers revealed that they had known of the aortic aneurysm all along, fraudulent concealment from Spaulding and the court.

The trial court held that the defense lawyers had no duty under ethical or procedural rules to disclose to the adverse party the information of which they alone were aware. Nevertheless, the settlement was set aside. Under Minnesota law, the court had discretion to rescind a minor's personal injury settlement when the petition seeking its approval did not fully and accurately state the minor's injuries. Once the parties had agreed on a settlement, they were no longer in an adversary relationship with respect to the court's approval of the settlement. The defendants, when they concealed Spaulding's aortic aneurysm from the court, took a "calculated risk" that the court might subsequently exercise its discretion to set aside the settlement. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Minnesota, in a terse and legalistic opinion, upheld the trial court's exercise of discretion.

A generation of law teachers and students has discussed this rich case on the basis of the limited facts and holdings contained in the trial court's memorandum and the state supreme court's brief affirming opinion. Emphasis is usually placed on the tension between the obligations of the lawyer's adversary role and the moral obligations of an actor to protect third persons from harm: Is a lawyer acting for a client required to protect a client's confidential information, even if doing so risks the sacrifice of an innocent human life?

A careful analysis of the case in the law school classroom reaches three conclusions: First, the settlement would not have been set aside if Spaulding had reached the age of majority when it was made. Second, the rules of legal ethics or of procedural law, in effect in Minnesota in 1957, did not require and probably prohibited the defense lawyers, without their clients' consent, from disclosing Spaulding's life-threatening condition to him. And third, under the ethics and procedural rules in effect in most states today, the same conclusions would be reached.

The Spaulding case forces law students to grapple with the harsh reality that the lawyer's partisan role in the adversary system, reinforced by the narrow exceptions to the professional duty of confidentiality, prevent a lawyer, without the consent of the client, from doing the right thing: telling Spaulding that he has a life-threatening condition that needs immediate attention. It is easy to discover or imagine other fact situations in which the lawyer's duty of confidentiality is in severe tension with ordinary morality. Spaulding is the classic setting for two fundamental issues of a life as a lawyer: Can a good lawyer also be a good person? And what can a good lawyer do under the lawyer codes as they are today to see that a morally decent course of action occurs?



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